I’m going through some complicated understandings of the relationship between my sexuality and trauma recently.
[CN: trauma, abuse, assault, mind control]
It took me a long time into adulthood before I realized that BDSM had been, for me, a way of normalizing abuse. That sounds dark, and it was, but remember that anything that makes us feel less alone in the dark is serving a purpose.
I unpacked some of this two years ago when I really started a quantum surrender on this journey (by quantum surrender I mean that I realized I had some control of the pace of my healing by how fully I allowed it to happen):
“Sex for me was about narrative because the narrative was so crucial to my survival. As a child of an abusive parent I was taught at a young age that I wasn’t allowed to enforce my personal boundaries, and so I looked in vain for someone else to rescue me and do it for me. If I had to belong to a man, I might as well try to belong to one who would protect me as an asset. My submission enabled my putting my partners’ wants and needs before my own, but my choice in doing that was understandable when you consider that I internalized the belief that it was unsafe for me to exist in the world without a protector, because as a child of an abusive parent I wasn’t allowed to enforce my own personal boundaries. Prioritizing my partner’s needs so that they wouldn’t leave me was just a misguided way of protecting myself; the threat of abandonment wasn’t just about abandonment – abandonment also meant losing my sense of safety. Sexual fulfillment for me came in the feeling of safety I experienced when I had been pleasing: ‘I have pleased you, I have submitted to you, I have given you what you want and therefore you have no reason to leave me, so I feel safe right now.’ I’m not sure I even know what my own sexual pleasure is like. I’m not sure I want to know right now, because being in my body feels so awful.”
It’s important to recognize that in the context of BDSM, in particular sadomasochism, this meant subjecting my body to extreme sensation and thereby cultivating desensitization as a skill set. My value was measured in my ability to endure. And since being able to feel our bodies is key to our discernment, I was also losing my ability to feel the difference between what hurt and what didn’t.
The fact that in many ways I chose this experience doesn’t change the effects of what I put my body through. As we learned when we learned about learned helplessness, it doesn’t matter if the cage door is open when the dog is receiving the shock – if the dog has been forced to endure the shocks before, he won’t know the difference. His freedom will be right in front of him but he won’t be able to see it.
For many years I didn’t understand the effects of what I put my body through, because the politics of sexual freedom insisted that it was my right to choose these conditions, and on a political level, it was and still is. But I didn’t consider what I was actually doing to myself, which was systematically giving up my capabilities of discernment through ritualized desensitization of my body and abject surrender to an outside authority who, it was obvious, I was incapable of vetting.
There’s a level beyond what was happening to my body, and that’s what was happening to my mind. My partner and I got certified in NLP and hypnosis (through separate institutions, notably). One of the reasons I didn’t start actively practicing NLP until a couple of years ago is that in those years I didn’t have the confidence to believe that it really worked, because even though I understood it intellectually, being unable to feel my body meant I was unable to feel the shifts that the language was capable of making.
And so I still thought that having proven mind control tactics used on me as part of a BDSM relationship – some in overt ways, some less so – was justifiable in the name of fantasy and agency. And in that process I allowed my partner to, consciously or not, use a rudimentary understanding of NLP paired with the operant conditioning of mundane neglect to install beliefs in me that I was only safe from abandonment or abuse when I was being compliant, pleasing, and actively entertaining. I probably would have kept on underestimating the effects of this had it not been for my energetic coach Katherine sensing the programming on me during our session work. “Whoa, this is incredible,” I remember her saying. “It’s a whole matrix, a whole system lining your body. It’s… impressive work, actually, very advanced, but it’s not yours and it has to go.”
I feel more than a little mixed about having written The New Rules Of Attraction when I think about it this way (something I brought to the attention of two psychological evaluators who saw me during a mental breakdown I had at the time it was published, and who had no clue what to tell me).
In the past two years I’ve still been waiting for the dust around my body to settle. It felt like my whole body had tinnitus and that if I just waited in the dark in silence for a long time, eventually it would stop ringing. There have been times that this stretch of near-celibacy (you know, a few occasions felt like safe containers but fewer than I can count on one hand) has felt difficult or trying but even in the massive void created I never compromised the path. And lately I’m starting to understand why.
Sometimes space is there to serve us. Sometimes it’s the passage of time, paired with intentionality, that allows imprints to leave our bodies so we can see clearly. If I had continued having sex during this time, there would have been no opportunity for a reset. If I had kept playing loud music the whole time, my ears would never have had the opportunity to stop ringing. Bringing our energetic cords with us through spacetime doesn’t help us create the void we need for real transformation to occur. We can’t bring in new things if we don’t make space for them. The void is our friend.
With enough distance and time I’m starting to see how I brought that training and conditioning into every relationship I attempted to have afterwards. I treated lovers like they were wardens. I plea-bargained for rescue from forces they weren’t capable of seeing. I was Goldie in Sin City, using her sexuality to bargain for protection. I went in expecting brutality, even encouraging it, and when a person wasn’t able to meet me in that space I felt lonely and misunderstood. And when they WERE, well, that usually turned out worse.
I was asked recently if I’ve ever had a trauma response during sex.
My first answer was no, because I’ve never had to ask a partner to stop, never went to some weird or scary flashback place or freaked out on someone or caused a fuss.
Then I realized – that’s not how I have a trauma response in relationship. I have a trauma response in relationship by NOT causing a fuss, by increasing my surrender and encouraging more brutality towards me to prove that I have more value because I can endure.
So I think the real question is, have I ever NOT had a trauma response during sex.
As I’m reflecting back over all this, I feel a fairly potent dash of shame for what essentially amounts to exposing my partners to secondary trauma. There was nothing there in those rooms that was a danger to me, physically, and yet I was bringing all my demons with me every time, showing up with a fuckton of unconscious programming put there by a sadist who viewed me more as his lab rat than his partner, running from things that no longer existed. It wasn’t my fault, and yet, I was doing it.
I’m not sure what “normal” looks like from here. I get that normalcy in sex is a myth used to oppress alternative sexual expression but what does my default look like? What was my authentic sexual expression before I was fucked with? I can’t even remember a time when my mind wasn’t filled with destructive, sadistic fantasies of power exchange. How do I have sex honestly?
I’ve been considering lately what it would look like to hire an intimacy coach just because I have no idea where they would start with me. My mind knows more sex than they will likely ever experience in their lifetimes, I have seen and done so, so much, and yet my body…
And yet my body.
(To be clear, because I know a zillion love & intimacy coaches follow me, I have other financial priorities to attend to first, like the next album, but it has been on my mind. I’m not sure right now that anyone can help me, and that faith would be a prerequisite to coaching work, but I’ve opened up a space of curiosity that I wouldn’t mind expanding if it feels right.)
So. It took almost three years, but I’m here in the void now. It’s dark and it’s silent. I’m celebrating because it means the release of all the energetic attachments that were holding me to my past.
And now do I just… get up and go? I’m waiting for the next sound, a sliver of light to come in from somewhere, something to tell me which direction to head off in.
It will happen when it’s time. I could use a nap in the dark for a while anyway.
This is why creating space for ourselves is key to full-bodied change. The long way is the fast way. The shortcut is the work.
The only shortcut is doing the work.